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Bronx Tale’s Star In Cop Killing

NYC- Lillo Brancato [pictured] looked destined for great things.

Picked off a crowded Jones Beach by talent scouts who spotted the 15-year-old’s natural tough-gangster looks, the Yonkers schoolboy was suddenly acting alongside his idol Robert De Niro.

But Steven Armento, his alleged partner in yesterday’s break-in and the man who cops say fired the shot that killed Officer Daniel Enchautegui, was simply a career criminal.

Brancato’s teenage role in “A Bronx Tale” launched a series of tough-guy performances for the actor.

But it seems his on-screen persona leached into his real life. Yesterday’s burglary gone wrong was the latest, and most serious, encounter with the law for Brancato, now 29. He was arrested twice in Yonkers, including once in June, when he was allegedly found with four glassine bags of heroin.

While rubbing shoulders with actor gangsters in HBO’s “The Sopranos” and CBS’ “Falcone,” it seems Brancato was also forming close associations with real-life criminals.

Neighbors say Brancato met Armento while dating his daughter Stefanie, 20. Armento, 48, of Yonkers, a father of twin daughters, has a criminal record spanning nearly 30 years, including four prison stints. His convictions include crimes involving firearms, drugs and burglary.

Armento’s ex-wife, Donna Nelson, said she divorced him 19 years ago because of his problems with drugs and drink – though she stayed in contact for the sake of their daughters.

“He’s always been on the wrong side of the tracks,” she told the Daily News yesterday. “As far as I know, he has never killed anybody, but I was not at all surprised to hear this.”

She said Brancato and her daughter met two years ago at a Yonkers gym where Stefanie worked. Stefanie tried to break off the relationship after six months because of his drug problems, but would date him sporadically, her mother said.

Three months ago, they split again. Nelson said Brancato started harassing her daughter after the breakup. She said police were called after Brancato broke into the home Stefanie shares with her dad on Wednesday. Several neighbors reported that cops visited both the Brancato and Armento homes Thursday night.

Born in Bogota, Colombia, Brancato was adopted by Italian-American parents in Yonkers when he was 4 months old. He still lives with them.

“I consider myself Italian,” he once said. “I was raised to eat pasta.”

As a teenager, he landed the part of a kid torn between two role models in “A Bronx Tale” – his hardworking, honest father and a local gang boss and his glamorous life. Casting director Ellen Chenoweth said at the time that Brancatolooked like De Niro. “\[And\] he did these uncanny, entire scenes from ‘GoodFellas’ and ‘Raging Bull,’ ” she said.

Since then, his screen portfolio has been packed with portrayals of criminals. He played Mafia wanna-be Matt Bevilacqua in “The Sopranos,” a character whose run on the show was ended by Tony Soprano in a rain of bullets fired in retaliation for an attempted hit.

After that, Brancato took a part as the mobster Lucky, a cold-blooded killer in CBS’ series “Falcone” in 2000. Brancato said of that character, “He’ll kill you in a second, not for too much of a reason, and he won’t think about it twice.” In “R Xmas,” a 2002 flick from edgy director Abel Ferrara, Brancato co-starred as a heroin dealer who is kidnapped by a corrupt cop.

Back Story: An off-duty cop who interrupted a break-in next-door to his home was killed yesterday in a blazing gun battle with the two burglars – one an actor who starred in “A Bronx Tale” and “The Sopranos,” authorities said.

Officer Daniel Enchautegui, 28, took down the suspects even though he was mortally wounded with a hollow-point bullet in the heart – shooting thespian-turned-thug Lillo Brancato and ex-con Steven Armento several times before collapsing in his Bronx driveway, cops said.

“It looks like every bullet he fired hit these guys,” a police official said.

Brancato, 29, who was plucked from obscurity by Robert De Niro as a teen and went on to play a string of mobsters, and Armento, 48, a lowlife pal from Yonkers, were hospitalized with serious injuries.

The pair may have been hunting for a stash of dope they wrongly believed was in the house next to the cop’s home, police sources said.

Enchautegui, a Bronx native and three-year NYPD veteran, died at Jacobi Medical Center, becoming the second cop killed in the line of duty this year, just two weeks after Officer Dillon Stewart was gunned down in Brooklyn.

“They took my son away from me,” the hero’s mom, Maria Enchautegui, told the Daily News, as family and members of New York’s Finest consoled her.

At the hospital, a grim-faced Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly praised the young officer for his “bravery and dedication” in confronting the burglars while off-duty.

“He did everything he could just as he was trained to do,” Kelly said. “For the second time in two weeks, we witness almost incomprehensible courage of a police officer.”

Enchautegui had finished his 4 p.m.-midnight shift at the 40th Precinct and returned to his rented apartment at 3117 Arnow Place in Pelham Bay when he heard the sound of glass breaking about 5:20 a.m.

He looked outside and realized someone was trying to bust into a vacant basement apartment in the house next door, so he told his landlord and called 911 on his cell phone, Kelly said.

Enchautegui took pains to describe what he was wearing so he wouldn’t be mistaken for one of the criminals. He put his police shield around his neck but did not have his bulletproof vest with him.

Once outside, he encountered the suspects, identified by sources as Brancato and Armento, both of Yonkers. “Police! Don’t move!” the cop yelled at the duo, according to his landlord.

Brancato was unarmed, but Armento allegedly opened fire with a .357 Smith & Wesson that apparently belonged to his late father, hitting Enchautegui in the left side of the chest and piercing his aorta with a hollow-point bullet.

Still, the officer managed to return fire, emptying his off-duty .25-caliber pistol in what Kelly described as a “fierce gunfight.”

Two officers from the 45th Precinct, Josue Sepulveda and Courtney Mapp, heard the shots and raced to the scene, where they caught Brancato as he climbed into his bloodied Dodge Durango, police said.

Two other cops, Sgt. Michael Hurley and Officer Paul Maldonado, drove up and grabbed Armento, who was dripping blood down Arnow Place as he tried to get away, the murder weapon still in his hand, police said.

Moments later, Enchautegui was found faceup in the driveway of his home, barely clinging to life – the gun next to him, his cell phone in his hand, his shield still around his neck.

He was rushed to Jacobi, where he was pronounced dead at 6:09 a.m.

Mayor Bloomberg said that even though Enchautegui was off the clock, his murder would be considered a line-of-duty death because he was trying to stop a crime.

Both suspects underwent surgery.

Brancato was in critical condition with two torso wounds.

His lawyer, Harvey Kaminsky of White Plains, said neither he nor Brancato’s parents were allowed to see the suspect. Kaminsky said he planned to seek police permission to visit his client.

Armento was shot five times – in the stomach, chest, shoulder, leg and groin – and was in serious condition.

Sources said both men have criminal records.

The actor has two misdemeanor arrests, including a bust for heroin possession six months ago, and Armento has done at least four stints in jail.

Brancato made a splashy debut at age 16 with a star turn in 1993’s “A Bronx Tale” as the teen torn between his bus driver dad, played by director De Niro, and the neighborhood mob boss, played by Chazz Palminteri.

In 2000, he scored a plum gig on “The Sopranos,” as Matt Bevilacqua, a stockbroker and Mafia wanna-be who gets rubbed out in spectacular fashion by Tony Soprano. He also appeared in the TV miniseries “Falcone.”

Enchautegui, by contrast, wanted to be on the right side of the law.

“Since he was a little boy he always wanted to be a cop,” cousin Eddie Feliciano, 34, said at the cops’ parents home a few miles away in West Farms. “This was his dream.”


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